Who was Robin Hood? A folk hero of Sherwood Forest who stole from the rich to give to the poor? The early ballads portray a quite different figure: impulsive, violent, vengeful, with no concern for the needy and no merry band.
Thus Hodd turns romantic legend on its head. The narrator, an elderly monk, recalls his boyhood as a minstrel in the greenwood, following a half-crazed bandit called Robert Hodd, who believed himself above God and beyond sin. But, as the monk slowly reveals Hodd’s true nature as a murderous felon, he must also wrestle with his own conscience, for it was his youthful ballads that elevated the outlaw into a popular hero.
When I started this book, I was confused for a minute. I thought the book was historical fiction, a retelling of the Robin Hood myth. If so, who then was this Francis Belloes and how come there where tons of footnotes? Of course, this is the central conceit of the novel: it is a translation by the aforementioned Francis Belloes of a far older manuscript. This manuscript is the autobiography of the monk mentioned in the blurb. So it is historical fiction, just done in a very clever way.
Before getting to the meat of the novel, I want to focus on the framework for a bit. This framework consists of the translator’s preface and the footnotes. I really thought these were well done. They made this book not just a historical novel of medieval times, but of World War I too. And the further the novel progresses, the more WWI intrudes into it through comments inserted into the footnotes by Belloes. The footnotes were the main reason I was confused at first. I looked some of them up and they all came out as existing titles, some of them even available from the library where I work! The amount of work that must have gone into researching not just Robin Hood and the medieval life, but into pre-Interbellum publications on Robin Hood-related texts and also WWI soldiers, is mind-boggling.
The story of Hodd isn’t so much about Robin Hood as much as it is about how the legend of Robin Hood was born. The novel’s narrator, a monk whose real name we never learn, was a minstrel before taking the cloth and through circumstance ends up part of Hodd’s gang. The novel is divided in four parts, much as our monk’s life was influenced by four masters. Only three masters are explicitly named, the hermit, Brother Thomas and Hodd, but one could name the Church as his final master under whose guidance he spent most of his days. Interspersed into the story of the monk’s time as Muche in Hodd’s band are his recollections of his previous masters. There are also some more theological contemplations, though never to excess as ‘Belloes’ has excised the largest part of these. The recollections provide an explanation of why he fell in with Hodd. They show how the monk felt himself superseded as first in his masters’ affections by new boys and feared abandonment. Hodd first makes him his first disciple and this lure proves too much for Muche.
While religion figures greatly in the story, it never becomes preachy. The religious outlook of the main character isn’t just due to his vocation as a monk; in the Middle Ages religion was the linchpin of most people’s existence. The book also shows the long overlap between Christianity and paganism in medieval times and the way people were still searching for what Christianity was exactly, resulting in various heresies, some of which are referenced in the book’s footnotes.
At the end of the book, the monk has come full circle and we’ve seen the birth of the Robin Hood saga as we know it. I truly enjoyed this book. While not a fast read, despite its slim 305 pages, it’s an engrossing one. It’s a fascinating look at how history can become legend and at the Middle Ages in all their rough, bleak glory.